Stoking the fire again
David Stokes has made a big impact on his rallying return in historics. He tells Paul Lawrence why he came back and why it had to be with a Ford Escort
The scene is a downhill hairpin-right on a slippery forest stage high in the Brendon Hills in Somerset. A Mkl Escort teeters on the limit of control under braking, but a deft Scandinavian flick-left kicks the tail out into a glorious powerslide. By the exit of the hairpin gravity seems sure to spin the car, but the driver never even thinks about coming off the power and calmly gathers it all up, grabbing more gears as the car plunges steeply on downhill. David Stokes knows how to drive an Escort.
Stokes, a larger-than-life character from deepest Gloucestershire, is back where he belongs. At the wheel of a BDA-powered Mk 1 Escort, he is one of the stars of the Armajaro MSA British Historic Rally Championship. Three decades ago he was an ace in national rallying in such cars and now, with his 60th birthday not too far away, he’s back.
These days he’s still quick, committed and as entertaining as ever. Two decades out of rallying has cost him no speed. In fact, Stokes reckons the pace is now higher.
”With the pace notes we’re travelling quite a bit quicker than we were in the 1970s. I was quick then, but used to have a lot of offs,” he says, with the laugh that is never far away. “I never really had anyone calling the stages in a forest. We really were driving it on sight. I’d say it’s safer now on notes. Not many people have big accidents.”
It all started in Ford Anglias back in the mid ’60s. Stokes was quick and soon moved onto Escorts, starting a love affair that has endured for nearly four decades.
His pace took him to the 1975 BTRDA Gold Star title, and a year later he added the national crown when he won the Castrol/Autosport Championship. His results earned him support from Ford.
“At the Castrol/Autosport awards do at the end of ’76 Peter Ashcroft from Ford told me to ring him the following Monday morning. He offered me Russell Brookes’s car for 1977. But I just couldn’t keep an engine together. I did the Castrol/Autosport series for the next four years. In 1977 I was eighth. Then in 1978 and ’79 the top three was the same: Malcolm Wilson, Jimmy McRae and myself.”
Things then went badly wrong in 1980 when a major accident in Penmachno forest finished his career: “I couldn’t drive for six months, so that was the end.”
Instead, the family bakery business took centre stage, and it was 20 years before historic rallying caught his attention: “I was watching Jimmy McRae do historic events and thought about buying a Lotus-Cortina.” However, his younger brother Andrew, a useful driver in his own right, talked him out of that. It really had to be an Escort.
“We went to watch the Robin Hood Stages in March 2002,” says Stokes. “That was it! A fortnight later I’d bought the rolling shell.” Typical of Stokes, who never does things by halves, he chose the daunting Epynt ranges for his comeback and was straight back on the pace. “I’m absolutely, totally on it. There’s no point in going out there not to do it!”
BHRC campaigns in 2003 and ’04 brought strong results, and in
’05 he won the post-historic title, missing the overall BHRC crown by a single point. In 2006 he’s chasing the BHRC again and will wrap up the year with another attack on the Roger Albert Clark Rally — he finished fourth overall in ’05.
Just as he was 40 years ago when he started out in rallying, Stokes is passionate about his sport: “I’m out there because I love it. I get a real kick out of trying to be successful. Rallying is number one for me. I wouldn’t change anything!”